Olympic reform legislation meant to address sexual abuse culture passes U.S. Senate

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed Olympic reform legislation that will demand greater accountability from the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and is meant to transform a culture that has allowed sexual abuse of athletes like that perpetrated by Dr. Larry Nassar to proliferate.

Both U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican of Yuma, and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver, trumpeted their work on the legislation, which included a provision they pushed for the appointment of a 16-member independent commission to study the USOPC and advise Congress within nine months on how to protect athletes.

Gardner stressed that the commission, which will be made up of at least eight Olympic or Paralympic athletes, will have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

“They’ll have the power to find everything they need to determine how the Olympics are run, and whether there is enough diverse membership, and how the licensing and funding arrangements are handled, and whether there is enough oversight of the sports,” Gardner said in an interview.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, where supporters hope to pass the bill by the end of the year. DeGette, in an interview, said she believes the House will secure final passage as early as September.

“No amount of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk,” said DeGette, who chairs the House Energy and Committee’s Oversight and Investigations panel, which oversees the nation’s Olympic-related activities. “When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning, and protecting a brand, than the athletes themselves, it’s time for change.”

The push for legislation followed an 18-month Senate investigation into widespread and systemic sexual abuse in sports sanctioned by the USOPC, a non-profit and tax exempt organization. The investigation was launched after details became public of the abuse of Nassar, who sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for molesting elite female gymnasts while purportedly treating them for sports injuries.

The legislation the Senate passed Tuesday would place greater legal liability on the USOPC and the national governing bodies it oversees, such as USA Gymnastics, for sexual abuse of athletes by coaches, trainers and other officials. It also would empower Congress with legislative mechanisms that could dissolve the USOPC board or national governing bodies for bad acts.

The legislation was hailed by Olympic athletes who were victimized.

“For too long, the wrong people held all the power. Now it’s back in the hands of the athletes, where it belongs,” said McKayla Maroney, a 2012 Olympics gold medal winner who was abused by Nassar.  “This bill recognizes the USOC failed us, and put child athletes at risk. I am grateful to the Senate for passing this bill, and look forward to see the House of Representatives take the next step to hold the leadership of the USOPC fully accountable for their failures.”

USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said the legislation had her support.

“It will cement increases in athlete representation in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movements, improvements in athlete safety protections and increases in transparency and accountability in our system,” Hirshland said in a statement. “The USOPC board recently approved the second phase of the most sweeping governance reforms in recent history. Building on that commitment and this legislation, we will move rapidly to implement reforms.”

The USOPC in November pledged it would increase athlete representation on its governing board, ensuring that athletes would make up a third of the board. The legislation would make similar changes in the national governing bodies, guaranteeing athletes would control a third of the governing structures as well. The legislation also requires the USOPC to provide greater oversight of the national governing bodies.

The USOPC also would be required to devote $20 million annually to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which was set up in 2017 to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and other potential offenses at Olympic affiliated national, state or local clubs. 

The bill also would require the U.S. Center for SafeSport to report to Congress within 72 hours of any attempted interference by the USOPC or any national governing body.

Financial filings released on Monday show that USOPC in 2019 contributed $7.5 million to the SafeSport body, officials of which have repeatedly decried a lack of funding to adequately address a deluge of sexual abuse complaints. That amount was nearly $300,000 less than what the USOPC paid Jet Set Sports, a New Jersey-based firm specializing in Olympic-related corporate hospitality, according to the financial records.

The financial records, detailed in the USOPC’s 990 filing with the IRS for 2019, also showed that last year the USOPC had $$53.89 million in employee expenses, including an annual salary of nearly $800,000 for Hirshland. In a letter to USOPC members, Hirshland wrote on Monday that the USOPC increased financial support for athletes and national governing bodies by 28 percent from 2018 to 2019, increasing that amount to just over $30 million.


By: Christopher Osher

Colorado Springs Gazette